Please don’t call it “learning loss.”
What our children have experienced over the last year is vastly different from what we — their parents, educators and communities — had planned for them pre-pandemic. They have, indeed, lost in-person instructional time. It’s quite possible they didn’t master every concept in the ascribed curriculum.
But let’s give our children the credit they deserve: They are learning every day because that’s what children are hard-wired to do. And the information they learned previously is not flying out of their heads. Meaningful learning is rarely “lost.” What they learned prior to the pandemic is still in there, and, with practice, they will get better at retrieving it.
The concept of learning loss developed when educators observed that student test performance fell from the end of one school year to the start of the next. They labeled it “summer learning loss,” but recent academic studies have questioned that very premise, reframing the problem as a function of memory rather than learning.
Memory is a complex process. Encoding happens at the front end when something is learned and placed into storage. Psychologists who study memory say encoded information is still there, but students quickly grow rusty at the last step of the process — retrieving it.
As educators, we can and must help them develop their retrieval skills through proven strategies. One of the most important of these is a meaningful, relevant curriculum that is culturally sustaining and deeply encoded because it is connected to student’s lives and experiences.
Our children have been through a lot this year. As we return to in-person learning, they need time to reestablish the social-emotional balance that is foundational to long-term academic success. As educators, more than ever we need to attend to the well-being of the whole child — and not just return to traditional structures that have long created systemic inequity.
So let’s welcome them back to our schools with a set of shared priorities that include accelerating learning, compassion and relationship building. Let’s make them feel safe and valued while being smart, innovative and practical in our approach to testing.
That’s why the New Mexico Public Education Department has asked the U.S. Department of Education to allow the state to provide flexible and commonsense options for testing this year due to the pandemic. Data remains important, and that’s why we’re asking to test a representative sample of students across the state, with schools, districts and families getting the option to be part of the sample.
In addition, we will also utilize other locally based assessments as part of a robust-yet-flexible approach to data collection this year. This approach balances the need for informative data on student achievement with the practical realities of the pandemic’s impact on in-person learning. It also places more emphasis on classroom-based “formative assessments” that help educators identify any post-pandemic academic concerns and adapt the curriculum accordingly.
Education has been changed forever by the pandemic. Look at all we’ve learned about technology and how we’ve embraced new teaching tools — no one wants to roll that back. We also have an opportunity to make whole-child education and deep family engagement the norm. Let’s not squander it.